MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Relief is sweet, but don't overlook rotation

Unconventional bullpen usage works in playoffs, would not in regular season

Relief is sweet, but don't overlook rotation

While the Chicago Cubs were putting an end to a 108-year World Series championship drought in 2016, the baseball public became engrossed with the way managers Terry Francona of the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs turned the seven-game Series into a chess match with bullpens.

Relievers combined to work 58 1/3 innings, with Francona calling on the bullpen to work more innings (32 1/3) than the rotation (30 2/3), and speculation grew about whether the World Series would create a radical philosophical change in bullpen usage.

Not likely.

With a New Year having been rung in, Opening Day just 90 days away, and teams moving ahead in their focus on the 2017 regular season, don't look for a major overhaul of how the game is played come April.

A solid rotation is the key to regular-season success, which has remained a staple despite the major changes the game has undergone since the emergence of analytics as a critical part of baseball.

And that was underscored in 2016. The Cubs ran away with the National League Central, then knocked off the Giants and Dodgers in the playoffs, thanks in no small part to their rotation. The Cubs' primary five starting pitchers all worked the 162-inning minimum to qualify for an ERA title, and combined to start 156 of 162 regular-season games.

It's one thing to extend a bullpen during a World Series -- where a maximum of seven games are played over a nine-day stretch, assuring days off so a bullpen can get rest -- and quite another to take that approach over the course of 162 games.

The Indians' relievers did compile the second-highest innings total in World Series history, finishing four innings behind the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, who used the bullpen for 36 2/3 innings in seven games. And the Indians' relievers recorded only two more outs than the 1984 Padres bullpen, which chalked up 31 2/3 innings in losing to the Tigers in five games.

The Indians' bullpen, in fact, is one of nine bullpens that has worked at least 25 innings in a World Series since 1996, which is a significant cutoff in evaluating the usage of pitchers in light of the fact that was the first 162-game season in which the Wild Card was included in the postseason, adding a third round of postseason play.

Also worth nothing is that despite the large workload of the Indians' bullpen, Andrew Miller led Cleveland relievers with 7 2/3 innings, which is tied for only the 34th-most innings a reliever has worked in a World Series. In the 2002 Series, Francisco Rodriguez worked 8 2/3 innings for the Angels. That ranks 27th on the all-time list.

Only four of the 61 relievers who have worked seven or more innings in a World Series have appeared since 1996 -- Rodriguez, Aroldis Chapman of the 2016 Cubs (7 2/3), Brendan Donnelly of the 2002 Angels (7 2/3) and Miller.

But then in recent years, pitching staffs have expanded from as few as eight pitchers -- four starters and four relievers -- to as many as 12 -- five starters and seven relievers -- occasionally adding another pitcher or two in an effort to avoid overworking a bullpen.

The day of the 300-inning season has come to an end. Steve Carlton was the last pitcher to reach that benchmark, working 304 innings for the Phillies in 1980.

Starters, however, are still assuming the bulk of the work. Since the first expansion in 1961, the number of pitchers to work the 162 innings necessary to qualify for an ERA title in a season in which at least 154 games were played has ranged from 62 in 1966 to 96 in 1988. There were 74 in 2016.

And durable rotations have been a key to success.

In the past 21 years, 74 of the 178 teams that advance to the postseason had at least four starting pitchers work at least 162 innings, including nine World Series champions and 21 of the 42 teams that reached the World Series.

The Cubs quintet of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel reinforced that over the course of the 2016 regular season.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.